by Cindy Novak and Liz Hunter
Nearly 800 women from across the country converged on the Phoenix Convention Center to learn, grow, worship and serve together during Women of the ELCA’s 2023 Just Love Gathering, Sept. 21-24.
Workshops, Bible studies and plenaries covered a range of topics, including immigration, human trafficking, climate change, the Truth and Healing Movement and allyship.
Servant events allowed women to give back by donating blood, making quilts for Lutheran World Relief, participating in the “Run, Walk and Roll” 5K to benefit Women of the ELCA’s Raising Up Healthy Women and Girls initiative, donating in-kind gifts for Phoenix-area non-profits, and knitting and crocheting “Knitted Knockers” breast prostheses.
The Just Love Gathering opened with a Thankoffering service in which the Rev. Irma Bañales, director for evangelical mission in the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod, preached and the Rev. Deborah Hutterer, bishop of the Grand Canyon Synod, presided. Nearly $20,000 in Thankofferings were received in the service based on the 2023 Thankoffering service (https://www.womenoftheelca.org/thankofferings) written by the Rev. Melissa Bills, director of college ministries and college pastor, at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa. Following the service and the first plenary session, attendees spilled out on the Canyon on Third and enjoyed refreshments, music and dancing, a long-awaited reunion and fellowship opportunity.
Focus on immigration
The Rev. Dr. Kelly Sherman-Conroy, a Native American theologian, led a Bible study session that focused on immigration.
“Immigrants are not threats or a burden but our siblings,” she said. “We need to have open hearts and minds and see the face of God in all.”
Sherman-Conroy said the command to love your neighbor as yourself (see Matthew 22:37-40) mirrors Lakota philosophy “to value all,” she said. “It is a call to action to embrace others the same way you embrace yourself.”
Sherman-Conroy shared ideas on how to provide welcome to immigrants.
“It starts with dialogue,” she said. “Advocate and volunteer. Create community where everyone feels valued, included and part of God’s creation.”
“Do not fear or reject the stranger, but welcome them as a beloved child of God,” she added.
Staff from ELCA AMMPARO (Accompanying Migrants with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities, https://elca.org/ammparo) led an interactive “Migrant Journey,” providing the opportunity for participants to “travel” throughout the gathering exhibit hall to stations that represented Central America, Mexico, the U.S. Mexico border and a U.S. community. Along the way, they played different roles, including a Central American mother, faith-based shelter director, border patrol officer and schoolteacher in the United States.
Participants learned how poverty, violence, political unrest and other circumstances could cause individuals and families to flee their homes to seek refuge and safety in the United States and other countries.
Marlene Rosselli, a member of Faith Lutheran Church, Menifee, California, said the experience helped her better understand why so many people would be willing to take the journey.
“One of the most important things to remember is that migrants are coming from all over the world to find a pathway to United States,” she said. “More people need to learn about the struggle and rationale for coming. We need to highlight the stories of those who have made the journey.”
During a plenary session, Dr. Jacqueline Busse, author of Love Without Limits, looked at the issue of immigration through the lens of the story of Jesus healing the man with edema on the Sabbath, angering religious leaders. (See Luke 14:1-6)
“It was a scandalous healing,” she said. “He went beyond the normal boundaries to show love.”
Busse said we can apply this lesson to caring for immigrants.
“Agape love is excessive,” she said. “It enlarges the circle of care. God’s love busts the binaries and widens the ‘we.’ We belong together. We are kin.”
She continued: “Exclusive love excludes. Exceptional love creates exceptions. With God’s love, there are no exceptions. God’s love is titanic. It is scandalous. If you annoy the powerful, then you know your love has dilated sufficiently. And only dilated love can give birth to new life. If you don’t believe me, ask any mom.”
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, explained how every minute, 20 people are forced to leave their homes. That’s nearly 30,000 people per day. “Imagine the sheer terror of fleeing your home, leaving everything behind, [leaving] your community,” she said. “The fear of the unknown is palpable, yet it is safer than the known.”
In 2022, climate disasters ranked as the highest reason for migration, O’Mara Vignarajah said. “And the situation is expected to get much worse,” she added.
O’Mara Vignarajah suggested a range of actions we can take, from reducing our carbon footprint to volunteering and advocating for environmental policies and solutions. “We have a divine calling to protect this planet and all who live on it,” she said.
“As people of faith, we believe that every person is a reflection of the divine, deserving of dignity, respect and protection. Faith calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. But who is our neighbor in a globalized world? Isn’t it all the families driven from their homes by flooding, drought, wildfires, sea level rise, and other disasters? We are called to reach out to them, to welcome them, and to stand with them in their time of need.”
Working against human trafficking
Bible study leader the Rev. Dr. Kelly Sherman-Conroy helped gathering participants look at the issue of human trafficking through the lens of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.
“We can respond [to human trafficking] by working toward healing and liberation, advocating for justice and restoring and healing survivors,” she said.
“Love and justice are intertwined,” she added. “They are two halves of a whole. Love propels us to action, recognizes the dignity and worth of others, and seeks the wellbeing of all. It doesn’t exclude.”
“Human trafficking is a profound violation of sacredness,” she said. It strips dignity. It is a horrific crime. It robs victims of their freedom and treats them like they are less than human.”
Sherman-Conroy shared the Lakota term, “Wacom,” which means every person or creature carries a divine spark. “All human beings have worth,” she said. “We are intricately connected. God resides in all creations. We are relatives.”
Satta Sherif, a Wittenburg University (Springfield, Ohio) graduate who is working on an MBA at the College of William and Mary (Williamsburg, Virginia), spoke about the ways human trafficking impacts those living in Liberia. Human trafficking, she said, “is normalized in Liberia.” Issues such as the continued recovery after the country’s civil war, systemic inequalities, child marriage, and the fact that only about 30 percent of children’s births are registered with the government “leave children vulnerable to trafficking.”
Sherif described how traffickers trick parents by promising to send their son or daughter to school. In reality, the traffickers transport the child to the city of Monrovia, where they will be made to walk the streets selling cold water and candy. “It is common to see children knocking on car windows, asking for money or being exploited by outsiders and families,” she said.
Sherif was one of eight young women from the ELCA International Women Leaders program (https://www.elca.org/internationalleaders) who made plenary presentations, sharing about migration, immigration and trafficking from their own experiences in their home countries of Indonesia, Liberia, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Poland, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
Pat Bellingham, a Women of the ELCA participant from Erie, Pennsylvania, described the SOAP (Saving our Adolescents from Prostitution) ministry she and other members of her women’s organization participate in.
To date, the group has distributed 15,000 bars of soap, labeled with the Human Trafficking Hotline number, to hotels throughout Northwest Pennsylvania. The group also gives hotel front-desk and hospitality staff a packet of information describing human trafficking red flags. Red flags can include: seeing young girls check into hotels by themselves or seeing someone check in for only a few hours instead of overnight.
Trafficking can happen to anyone, Bellingham warned. “Please know what your children are doing online,” she said. Traffickers often frequent chat rooms on the Internet, and “12 to 14 years old is the average age for a child to be trafficked,” she said.
Justice for indigenous women too
Prairie Rose Seminole spoke about the upcoming 2024 release of her film documentary, We Ride For Her, which centers around the lack of attention and follow-up on the many cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women. For most of us, Seminole said, this issue “is still under the radar.” Becoming better neighbors, being in community and in right relationship with Indigenous members means recognizing that “we belong in this church, and our history is your history as well,” she added.
Seminole also spoke of how, while making the film, she learned about the rise of a new kind of trafficking of medical patients, where “vulnerable adults were put into treatment facilities and exploited” by moving them back and forth between facilities and even “opening credit cards in these individuals’ names. …Two tribal nations here in Arizona were trying to work to get their enrolled members out of those houses, [where their traffickers were] people who looked like us, who said [they were] here to help.”
Bible study leader the Rev. Dr. Kelly Sherman-Conroy also spoke about our “shared responsibility to protect the most vulnerable members of our global community, including women and children, who are often the primary victims of horrific crimes.” The “necessity for collective action” includes the tragic situation of missing and murdered Indigenous women, who have often “been targeted [and] fallen victim to sex trafficking.”
By intervening, raising awareness, supporting survivors and advocating for systemic changes that prevent these atrocities, “the church, as the body of Christ, can play a pivotal role,” she said.
When Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25), he underscores the “inherent value and dignity of every individual, regardless of their social status or circumstance,” Sherman-Conroy said. “[Jesus Christ calls us] to embody a spirit of service, compassion and justice, mirroring Christ’s own heart for the disenfranchised. This message aligns powerfully with mitakuye oyasin, the Lakota philosophy of interconnectedness.”
These messages, Sherman-Conroy said, make clear that our responses to immigration and trafficking “must be rooted in empathy, compassion and justice. Immigrants are not mere statistics. They are not faceless entities. They are our siblings. Their struggles and their aspirations echo our own. And our actions toward them reflect our actions towards Christ.”
Vance Blackfox, director of ELCA Indigenous Ministries and Tribal Relations, led several workshops, which included information on missing and murdered Indigenous women, as well as:
- the ELCA’s Truth and Healing Movement, described by the ELCA as “an opportunity for this church to increase our understanding of our colonizing impacts on Indigenous people in the past and present.”
- the ELCA’s social policy resolution, “Repudiation of Doctrine of Discovery.”
- the “Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy Act,” the first federal effort to formally investigate and document the “cultural genocide, assimilation practices, and human rights violations of Indian Boarding Schools in the United States.”
Blackfox encouraged participants to explore the ELCA Indigenous Ministries and Tribal Relations website (www.elca/indigenous), which includes links to: the ELCA’s Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery; a land acknowledgement guide; and information on missing and murdered indigenous women, Indian boarding schools and much more.
‘Ambassadors of Just Love’
During the closing worship, the Rev. Tiffany Chaney preached a sermon based on the parable of the landowner and day laborers (see Matthew 20:1-6).
She posed several questions for those worshipping to consider, including:
- In what ways do we grumble about God’s graciousness when others are treated the same as us?
- In what ways do we call generous people, policies, and programs in our country unfair because we don’t think others deserve the same as us?
- In what ways do we create a hierarchy, even in our church?
“As bold women of faith, Jesus’ parable shows us if we practice Just Love, our actions will be counter cultural [and]… rooted in the ways of Jesus,” she said.
The Rev. Kimberly Knowle-Zeller, of Cole Camp, Missouri, presided.
Note: The 2026 Women of the ELCA Triennial Gathering will be held in Des Moines, Iowa, July 16-19, 2026. Advanced discounted registration for this event is available online (https://na.eventscloud.com/ereg/index.php?eventid=763420&).